Arabs, Jews and Socialism: Debate: Jim Higgins and Sean Matgamna

Submitted by martin on 20 June, 2019 - 12:04 Author: Jim Higgins, Sean Matgamna
Cover: Arabs, Jews, and Socialism

This debate between Sean Matgamna and the late Jim Higgins (former National Secretary of the SWP), was sparked by a column by the late Paul Foot in Socialist Worker and Sean Matgamna's comment on it. The debate ran in Workers’ Liberty nos.32-34 and 38, in 1996-7.

"Mr Foot, do you hate the Jews?"

By Paul Foot

I got this letter recently from a woman in Surrey.

Dear Mr Foot

I was so disappointed in you when I heard your hysterical outburst against Israel on Any Questions.

I have admired your column in the Guardian and your cogent socialist views for a long time. However, you did yourself no good in the programme in revealing your up-till-now well-hidden anti-Jewish bias.

You took no account of the provocation received by Israel for such a long time from the terrorist group, Hezbollah.

You just hate Jews - it was perfectly obvious. And you should be honest enough to say so instead of hiding it behind your criticism of Israel.

Here is my reply.

Thank you very much for your letter. Almost every time I manage to publicise my strong views about the state of Israel, I get attacked for being anti-Semitic and for “hating Jews”.

My instinctive reaction - ‘No, I don’t hate Jews at all” - harks back to the old and notoriously patronising, “Some of my best friends are Jews”.

So let me explain why I am against Israel. The idea of a safe homeland for Jews gained a lot of sympathy among socialists after the long years of Nazi persecution.

The problem with the chosen homeland, Palestine, however, was that it was already populated by Palestinians. A Jewish state could not be created there without the forcible expulsion from their homes of a million people, most of whom have been living as refugees ever since.

This expulsion was followed by the grossest discrimination against the Palestinians living in Israel, and periodic outbursts of unashamedly imperialist aggression and occupation of neighbouring countries.

The Six Day War in 1967 was a war of conquest in which thousands of miles of other people’s territory were added to Israel by force of arms.

Naturally, all this led to violent resistance among the expelled and stateless Palestinians, which in turn led to Israeli counter-terrorism in an apparently endless spiral.

Throughout, the Israeli aggressions were supported by the United States government, whose greed for cheap oil is always threatened by Arab nationalism, and especially by Arab socialism, both of which have been sidetracked and contained by the very existence of Israel.

The arguments which gave rise to the sympathy for a Jewish homeland on the left were turned on their head. The persecuted became the persecutors - the oppressed the oppressors.

One result is that Jews are far less secure in Israel than they are, say, in Britain or the United States or in most other places in the world.

This brings me to your accusations. It is you, not I, who automatically connect the state of Israel with Jews, and construe every attack on or defence of Israel as an attack on or a defence of Jews.

In this, it seems to me, you are cutting yourself off from the best Jewish socialists and reformers who have consistently been anti-Zionist.

So, although it’s true, I don’t rely on the fact that some of my best friends are Jews.

More optimistically, I conclude that some of the fiercest fighters for human emancipation are Jews, and all of those are anti-Zionist.

Paul Foot, philo-semite

By Sean Matgamna

Dear Paul Foot:

In your Socialist Worker column (16 May 1996) you print a letter in response to what you said about Israel on “Any Questions”, headed “Mr Foot, Do You Hate The Jews?”, and reply: “No, I don’t hate Jews at all”.

Of course not. Who could possibly suspect you of hating Jews - a life-long socialist and for three and a half decades the most prominent acolyte of Tony Cliff, who is in origin a Palestinian Jew? No.

You deny the right of Israel to exist. You are hostile to Jews (and others) who are “Zionists”, that is, to Jews who pointedly defend Israel’s right to exist, which means most Jews alive. You engage in blinkered, savagely partisan, propaganda against Israel on the radio, on TV, and in newspaper columns. Against Israel you support even such an Arab Hitler as Saddam Hussein.

To tell you the truth, if I didn’t know you for a socialist I might conclude: “Typical upper-class twit giving vent to the ingrained prejudice of his sort - a bit like the people who run Private Eye, perhaps - part of the romantic Arabist strain of British upper-class anti-Jewish feeling”. But I know you for a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party. You do not hate Jews.

But substitute hate for being bribed, and the position is rather as described in the well-known comment, Hilaire Belloc’s I think: “You simply cannot bribe or twist/ The honest British journalist./ But seeing what the chap will do/ Unbribed, there’s really no occasion to”.

You consistently reject the only socialist approach, Arab-Jewish working-class unity and consistent democracy as a means to achieve that unity - that is, the most equitable settlement possible in this tragic conflict, two states for the two peoples and full equality for Jews and Arabs in each others’ states.

Your column is astonishing in its ignorance of or lack of concern for truth - astonishing not according to the standards of a high-profile bourgeois journalist, but according to the standards of someone who might possibly consider himself a Marxist.

You say socialists sympathised with the idea of a safe home for Jews as “the long years of Nazi persecution”. In fact, 12 years. You substitute an exaggerated measure of time to avoid mentioning the relevant measure: six million Jews murdered and many others uprooted.

You say the “chosen homeland”, Palestine, was “already populated” by Palestinian Arabs. But the Jews were by 1947 a big national minority, about one-third of the population: why did they not have rights, including the right to separate and the right to defend themselves?

“The Jewish state could not be created without the forcible expulsion from their homes of a million people”. In fact, Israel was proclaimed, in May 1948, in territory allotted by the United Nations, without any Arabs being expelled. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs did flee - the great majority not expelled - after Arab states, with the backing, naturally enough, of the Palestinian Arabs, invaded Israel.

If Israel had not won that war, then the Jews would have been massacred or expelled: indeed, in the following years, almost as large a number of Jews were expelled from or fled Arab countries. It would have been better if no-one had been expelled, but what sense other than malevolent Arab chauvinism can there be in such distortions of history - if you yourself know the history, such lies - for the too-tolerant readers of Socialist Worker?

The Six Day War of June 1967 did become a war of conquest by Israel, but the moves that triggered the war came from Egypt, which blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba. Until the Egypt-Israel treaty of 1979, all the Arab states - and, until 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organisation - took as their goal the complete destruction of Israel and the subjugation of its people. That being so, to talk as if the long conflict came only from Israel’s “unashamedly imperialist aggression and occupation of neighbouring territories” is to be the socialist equivalent of a Sun journalist, a shameless lawyer for a preconceived view rather than an objective analyst.

Israel has been moving - so I would argue, though the 30 May election may change that - towards withdrawal from the occupied territories, trading land for peace. If the Arab states and the PLO had been willing to make peace in the aftermath of the 1967 war, then Israeli withdrawal from those territories would have been the immediate result, and without the painful uncertainties that accompany the process three decades later.

The cycle of terrorism and counter-terrorism did not begin with Israel’s “shameless imperialist aggression”. It began way back in 1929, or earlier, with Muslim chauvinist pogroms against Jewish settlers (who were not always “Zionists”, either).

“The persecuted became the persecutors, the oppressed the oppressors”. Yes, tragically, that was the experience of the Palestinian Arabs. Yet all this occurred in the context of Arab invasions, threatened invasions, or foiled invasions.

“Jews are far less secure in Israel than they are, say, in Britain and the US”. Yes indeed: in other words, Arab chauvinism is a real threat. But in the 1930s and 40s, when Israel was shaped, all major countries - from the US through the UK to Stalin’s Russia - kept out the Jews threatened with annihilation. Britain kept them out of Palestine.

After the Second World War many thousands of Jews languished in Displaced Persons’ camps - often former German concentration camps - or in British internment camps in Cyprus. Some Jews going home to Poland from Hitler’s camps met with pogroms and murder.

What should the Israeli Jews do now? Pack up and move?

It is not you, so you say, who connect Israel, and your hostility to it, with Jews in general; rather, it is those who say that your attitude to Israel is anti-semitic. But can you possibly fail to understand that since Israel has come to be central to the identity of most Jews alive - a few religious people and revolutionary socialists excepted - the distinction you make is spurious and false? Isn’t it no more than a smirking smart-arse hypocrisy, the equivalent of saying “if the cap fits, wear it”?

By her attitude to Israel, you say, your correspondent is “cutting herself off from the best Jewish socialists and reformers”. They have “consistently been anti-Zionists”. Some of your best friends are Jews, eh? These are “some of the fiercest fighters for human emancipation”. “All... are anti-Zionists”.

Is it that you don’t notice that here you automatically label almost the entire Jewish population of Israel - workers, socialists, the lot - as reactionary, together with most Jews world-wide who are not “anti-Zionist”, and read them out of the forward march of humankind? Surely not! You are not, as supporters of Workers’ Liberty are, critical of Israel, and in support of those within it who fight for equality between Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens and for an independent state for the Palestinian Arabs where they are the majority. You want Israel destroyed. Even a Saddam Hussein is to be supported in such an enterprise.

You probably are unaware that since Trotsky, continuing to follow the pre-Stalinist line of the Communist International, supported the right of Jewish migration to Palestine (as to Britain, the US, etc.), he would not qualify as a latter-day anti-Zionist, and that in SWP terms his credentials as a “fierce fighter for human emancipation” would have to be severely reviewed, if not revoked!

It is you, let me suggest, and Cliff, your mentor, who part company with the fight for human emancipation. That, ultimately, is a fight for socialism. It will not be waged under the banner of Arab nationalism or of any other nationalism. In practice you are vicarious Arab nationalists.

For you, Israel is to blame even for Arab chauvinism. “Arab nationalism... and Arab socialism have been sidetracked and contained by the very existence of Israel”. Israel, and the Jewish settlers before that, are to be blamed for not letting themselves be crushed? Comrade Foot, isn’t this a disgraceful exhibition of British bourgeois Arabism disguised as socialism and licensed for socialist consumption by the strange figure of Cliff, the Palestinian-Jewish Arab chauvinist? Cliff gets away with training people like you in such politics because it is hard to pin the proper anti-Jewish tag on someone who in his persona is a benign person’s idea of an old Israeli Jew. But that is what Cliff is: an Arab chauvinist.

Nonsense? Recall the interview with Cliff about his history in the SWP magazine in which he criticises himself for believing in 1938-9 that Jews should have a right to flee from Hitler to Palestine (Socialist Review no.100).

Think about it. What is he saying here but that, if countries like Britain and the US could not be persuaded to let Jews in, then it would have been better that they were left at the mercy of Hitler than that they should go to Palestine? The interview is very sloppily done, but the implication is clear - and it fits the vicarious Arab chauvinist politics which Cliff purveys and has educated you and others in.

Cliff presents himself as having been in the Stalinist party in Palestine in the mid-1930s. If that is true, then he was brainwashed, like other young Jewish members of the CP, into Arab chauvinism. (Some were sent to plant bombs in Jewish quarters: if you want more details, see the article on “Trotsky and the Jews” in Workers’ Liberty no.31). Even if he did falter in 1938-9, for 30 years now he has spread an updated version of such politics. Your politics on Israel/Palestine, Paul Foot, are rooted in Third Period and then Popular Front Stalinism in Palestine!

I repeat, contrary to the SWP’s vicarious Arab chauvinism, the only socialist policy for the Jewish-Arab conflict is the fight for Jewish and Arab working-class unity on the basis of mutual recognition of national rights: two states for the two peoples!

For sloppiness, double standards, deliberate misconstruction, misrepresentation, and plain mendacity, it would be hard to find so large a concentration in so small a number of words as your column contains. Paul Foot, the line you push on Israel is an anti-socialist disgrace! But no, you are not anti-semitic. Some of your best friends are Jews. You, comrade Foot, are for the Jews what Belloc’s journalist was for the truth.

“I really must refute your views,

Believe me: I don’t hate no Jews.

For seeing what pure love will do,

What need have I for hatred too?”

A secular-democratic state

By Jim Higgins

It is always a pleasure to see Sean Matgamna in full spate and my enjoyment of his piece, “Paul Foot, philo-semite” (WL 32), was abated only by the fear that the might do himself a serious mischief, carrying that immense weight of heavy irony.

What a spiffing wheeze, Sean must have though, to belabour Footie with Hilaire Belloc, because one thing is sure, whatever Foot’s prejudices may happen to be, Belloc was a brass-bound and copper-bottomed anti-semite, the author of the lines: “How odd of God, to choose the Jews.”

Now I have not read, and I hope I do not have to do so, the Paul Foot articles that have so aroused Sean’s rage, but I assume that it is anti-Zionist and that it sees the state of Israel as the single greatest barrier to socialism and peace in the region. If that is the case then Paul Foot has adopted, in this case if no other, the only tenable position for a Marxist.

There used to be a man, I do not know if he is still alive, called Pat Sloan. He was for many years the secretary of the British Soviet Friendship Society. If anyone suggested in the press that Joe Stalin had smelly feet, or Molotov was “old stone bottom”, Pat would write in to say that he personally owned two pairs of Stalin’s socks, and they glowed in the dark, suffusing his bedroom with a perfumed aroma like Chanel No.5. As to Molotov, his bum was in fact made of the finest Ferrara marble, which like aeroplanes, cars, radio, TV and the air conditioned pogo-stick had been invented in Russia. Sean on Israel puts me very much in mind of Pat Sloan in full apologia mode.

Let us take the question of the expulsion of a million Arabs from their homes. Sean says, “In fact Israel was proclaimed in May 1948, in territory allotted by the United Nations, without any Arabs being expelled. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs did flee - the great majority not expelled - after Arab states with the backing, naturally enough, of the Palestinian Arabs, invaded Israel.” In this case Sean is guilty of exactly that of which he accuses Foot, distorting history. As the result of a plan conceived in January 1948, the Zionists moved in April of that year. The Irgun Zvei Leumi bombarded Jaffa for three days, Haganah attacked the Arab community in Jerusalem, and on the 9th April, the Irgun and the, fascist-trained, Stern Gang attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin, killing in cold blood 254 men, women and children. It was the news of these massacres which set the Arab refugees on the move and it was their land expropriation that enabled the Zionists to increase their share of the partitioned state by 25% before the UN resolution was even passed. In 1948 the Arab armies, apart from a few Egyptian troops, all fought on Arab land.

In a sense, the detailing of who did what to whom is not very productive. What the Arabs did to Jews in 1929, and on several other occasions, or what Jews did to Arabs in 1948 and have done consistently ever since, suggests an equality between Arabs and Jews that does not exist. It suggests that they were acting as in a vacuum. It really was not like that.

From the very beginning of the Zionist movement, its leaders attempted to get the support of powerful backers. Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, tried unsuccessfully to approach the German Kaiser and the Sultan of Turkey. After his death, Weitzman had a first meeting with Arthur Balfour in 1906, that bore fruit in 1917 in the Balfour Declaration for a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Balfour was not only giving away a land already occupied by Palestinians, but also was effectively disposing of the spoils of war that had yet to be won.

Weitzman, however, had chosen wisely, and a Jewish population that had stood at 130,000 in 1914 under the British increased by half a million by 1939. Naturally enough, while this represented no great British sympathy for Jews - Balfour in fact was an anti-semite - it did represent a useful counterbalance to the Arabs and made it easier to control Palestine which was important strategically for its proximity to the Suez Canal and as a vital link for the sea route and air routes to India and the East. Oil from Iraq flowed through the pipeline to Haifa, which was known as the Singapore of the Middle East.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s British imperialism put on a virtuoso performance of divide and rule. They blew up Arab houses, they demolished villages to punish “collective guilt”, established concentration camps, which they justified on the basis of protecting Jews and Jewish property. On the other hand the British would turn off the immigration tap to punish Jews and reward the Arabs. Any sign of Arab-Jewish rapprochement would be met by a sold alliance of Arab feudalists, Zionists and the British administration.

At the beginning of the war in 1939, the Zionists recognised that Britain was in decline and that America was a much more powerful patron. America in its turn sought to replace Britain as the power in the Middle East; Zionism was a useful weapon in this project.

The role that Israel has played in the Middle East was nicely summed up by the editor of the Israeli daily newspaper, Ha’aretz, when he explained in 1951: “Israel has been given a role not unlike a watchdog. One need not fear that it will exercise an aggressive policy toward the Arab states if their will contradicts the interest of the USA and Britain. But should the west prefer for one reason or another to close its eyes one can rely on Israel to punish severely those of the neighbouring states whose lack of manners towards the west has exceeded the proper limits.”

Israel has certainly lived up to its promise to punish those failing to show proper respect and in the process has taken on more and more of its neighbours’ territory. Of course, they have learned, like other invaders before them, that it is not always easy to keep the natives quiet, even if you pursue a humanitarian Rabin policy and just break the arms of stone throwing children.

Sean makes much of Tony Cliff’s 70th birthday statement: “I used to argue that poor Jewish refugees should be allowed to come to Palestine… That was an unjustified compromise…” To which Sean responds: “Think about it. What is he saying here but that, if countries like Britain and the US could not be persuaded to let Jews in, then it would have been better that they were left to the mercy of Hitler than that they should go to Palestine?” There is, however, a slight problem here, because at the Bermuda Committee in 1943 Roosevelt suggested that all barriers be lifted for the immigration of Jews from Nazi persecution. To avoid offending British sensibilities Palestine was excluded from consideration. Zionist reaction was immediate and hostile, alleviation of Jewish misery was to be in Palestine or not at all. As Dr Silver told the 22nd World Zionist Congress: “Zionism is not an immigration or a refugee movement, but a movement to re-establish the Jewish state for a Jewish nation in the land of Israel. The classic textbook of Zionism is not how to fund a home for the refugees. The classic textbook of our movement is the Jewish state.” You cannot get much clearer than that. Hal Draper, a Marxist with some prestige in Workers’ Liberty circles, records: “Morris Ernst, the famous civil rights lawyer, has told the story about how the Zionist leaders exerted their influence to make sure that the US did not open up immigration (into the US) to these Jews - for the simple reason that they wanted to herd these Jews to Palestine.”

Sean, quite correctly it seems to me, says the answer is the unity of Arab and Jewish workers. He then goes on to spoil it by suggesting they then set up separate states. What kind of states are these? Is there a mini-Palestine on a bit of the West Bank, plus the Gaza Strip, and a bigger, much more prosperous Jewish state, or has Sean got some complicated scheme for population exchange, like he used to have for Ireland? Surely, what is needed is a secular Arab-Jewish state based on socialism and democracy in all of Palestine.

Paul Foot, of course, can speak for himself, and why not, it is his favourite subject, but there is nothing manifestly anti-semitic in the points Sean attributes to him. Indeed what is strange about Sean’s piece is the absence of any mention of the role of British and American imperialism in the Middle East. There is nothing Stalinist in a recognition of Israel’s client status to US imperialism. Nor is there anything anti-Semitic in recognising that a Zionist state smack in the middle of the region, is the greatest enemy of peace and socialism for all the Jews and Arabs of the Middle East.

Two states for two peoples

By Sean Matgamna

In the recently made Disney cartoon version of the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” - so I’ve read somewhere - Quasimodo - “Quassi” - is not seriously deformed, and he is not cripplingly deaf; the villain is no longer a priest; the chirpy, friendly characters sing to each other in American accents; and, for all I know, it ends with Esmerelda and Quasimodo - “Essie and Quassi” - going off together hand in hand into the sunset.

It explains quite a lot, though it does, I admit, surprise me, that Jim Higgins operates with a - darker-toned - Disneyfied version of history.

When I read Jim’s whimsy about smelly socks and marble backsides it did flit through my mind that he was, inappropriately, trying to be funny. I had to abandon that idea because he never pulls out of it. The supposedly serious stuff is all on the same level!

The feeble humour disappears, but his entire account is in the same mode, consisting of snippets of chewed up “history” concocted into a simple albeit malevolent tale.

Highly complex questions of national conflict are reduced to children’s tales of good guys and black-jowelled bad guys.

Let me tell you the grown-up story, Jim. You’d have done better to leave Stalinism and its spinners of malign fairy stories out of it, for your politics on Israel come directly from Stalin.

Stalin was, to take the pertinent example, at the end of his life running a raging campaign of paranoid anti-Jewish propaganda, complete with show trials, and seemingly getting ready for a wholesale rounding up of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe - he died too soon - and possibly for large-scale massacres.

Following Kremlin propaganda, in support of Russia’s post-1949 foreign policy in the Middle East, and Stalin’s anti-Jewish - “anti-Zionist” - purges and trials in Eastern Europe, the Stalinists created in the early 50s and after a full-scale account of modern history, and of Jewish history, in which the “Zionists” were the great villains, possessed of a demonic power and malevolence. The Zionists in, for example, the show trial in Prague in 1952 were revealed as being almost as tricky as the Trotskyists, who had been exposed and branded as allies of fascism in the Moscow Trials of 1936-8.

There, the Trotskyist left of Bolshevism was amalgamated with the Bukharinite right, old Bolsheviks were shown to be Fascists and the men who led and organised the October revolution were shown to have been secretly working for its defeat!

Things were never what they seemed: eternal vigilance was the price of Stalinist probity, and eternal paranoia was even better.

Like the Trotskyists, the Zionists too were not always what they seemed. The devil can change his form in a flash of light.

Zionists? Ha! In a world where Jews were surrounded by anti-semitism, they worked with anti-semites, “implicitly accepting” their racist premises: the Zionist Herzl visited Von Plehve, the anti-semite Tsarist minister, just as Trotsky had treacherously negotiated with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk. More: they worked closely with the Nazis: didn’t some of them freely choose to negotiate with the mass murderers who held guns to the heads of millions of Jewish captives?

Jewish nationalists whose avowed mission was to redeem the Jewish people from the Diaspora and to recreate a Jewish nation in Palestine - why, these were in reality the arch-collaborators with the Nazis who set out to kill every Jew in Europe, and did kill two out of three of them.

This was propagated and believed from the late 40s and early 50s by the world “communist” movement: the great irony is that it spread in the 70s to the Trotskyist current and is still a power there.

Against fairy-story history it is necessary to erect real history, and against Arab-chauvinist politics working-class politics, and I will do that. But first we need to establish what the point of all this is. Can it be that those of us who defend the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state so long as that is what the Israeli Jews want, and propose as a solution to the conflict what the PLO now proposes - two states; and full and equal citizenship for Palestinian Jews and Arabs in each other’s state - simply lack sympathy or empathy with the Palestinian Arabs?

Is our attitude the mirror image of the vicarious Arab chauvinism I would ascribe to Jim Higgins - and Tony Cliff and Paul Foot? Are we just native or adoptive Jewish nationalists? No we’re not!

Of course we sympathise with the losers so far in the Arab-Jewish conflict, the Palestinian Arabs and their descendants. Of course we supported their Intifada against intolerable conditions and Israeli occupation of the territories where they are the majority. Of course we support the PLO aspiration to have an independent Palestinian state - where the Palestinian Arabs are a majority.

They have our sympathy and in general our support. But then what? Then we adopt their viewpoint in its entirety? We do what kitsch Trotskyists and Jim Higgins, who has spent a lot of his life sneering at “Trots”, do and propagate the old Stalinist paranoid myths about modern Middle Eastern history? We express and elaborate and rationalise the Arab bourgeois and petty bourgeois account of their own history?

No, we don’t, no we can’t - if we aspire to be communists and not one or another sort of vicarious nationalist.

Let us look briefly at history, matching facts against fairy stories, and real history against Jim Higgins’ Disneyisation of the story.

How did it happen that in the middle of the 20th century a Jewish state reappeared after 2,000 years? From where did the ideologists of ‘Zionism’ suddenly derive such power over the minds of so many Jews, people of many classes scattered across many lands, as to induce hundreds of thousands of them to be pioneer settlers and workers in Palestine?

Zionism gripped Jewish minds as an urgent project of Jewish resettlement because of the alarming growth of anti-semitism in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. There are recorded statements of astonishing accuracy predicting large-scale massacres of the Jews - Weizmann in 1919, for example. Judophobia would continued to grow until it produced the murderous crescendo of the Holocaust.

After 1881, there was the start of systematic pogroms in the Russian empire, including Poland, whence many of those who went to Palestine came. In France, where the great revolution had long ago raised the Jews to equal citizenship, anti-semitism became a powerful rallying cry for the right (and not only for the right; there was ‘left’ anti-semitism too: “the socialism of idiots”).

Everywhere there were stirrings of anti-semitism. Jews became the victims of the international plague of nationalism and chauvinism, and the widespread post-Darwin pseudo scientific racist nationalism.

Zionism, initially a minority among Jews, gained force and strength from these events until, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the big majority of Jews were Zionists.

The uneasy sense of mortal danger and real persecution gave much of its energy to Zionism.

The gathering poison gas of Judo-phobia drove the Zionist enthusiasts of the first and second waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, from Tsarist Russia and Poland. Long before Hitler came to power, in the mid 20s, the third great wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine came from Poland, a direct result of anti-Jewish measures taken by the regime there. Already, the alternative escape routes were closing. The USA had ended its open doors policy for emigration in 1924. The next great wave in the 30s was a direct response to Hitler and to continuing Polish anti-semitism. The point here is that already, before the Holocaust, mass Zionism as an idea, and migration to Palestine as a refuge, as the best option in a world closing in on the Jews, were inextricably bound together and impossible to prise apart.

The same was true only much more so after the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of Jewish survivors of the death camps languished for years in Displaced Person’s Camps, some of them made-over former concentration camps.

Anti-semitic feeling did not hide its head for shame then, as you might think it would.

There was widespread prejudice: in the USA at about that time the cinema newsreels were showing pictures of the Nazi death camps there was a spate of attacks on Jews and even on Jewish children in American city streets, in Minneapolis to take an example reported in the US Trotskyist press of that time.

Another example from the same source: asked in 1945 by the US Department of Education in a questionnaire what they thought of educational provision and training for their profession, the official association of US dentists made the formal and official reply: everything is fine except that there are too many Jews in the dental colleges.

Deported Jews returning to Poland met with pogroms and murder. In an opinion poll taken amongst Jewish Displaced Persons in camps in Europe the big majority gave Palestine as their first choice of refuge: they wanted to be with their own; they couldn’t trust strangers after their experience.

By that time there were half a million Jews in Palestine, about one in three of the population. Why from a socialist as distinct from an Arab chauvinist point of view did they not have national rights?

The Jewish national minority in Palestine was first offered partition by Britain in 1937 and then had it taken away: on the eve of the war Britain announced that Jewish immigration would be cut to a few thousand a year and after five years stopped. Effectively, Britain closed the ports of Palestine to Jews fleeing Nazi Europe.

Jewish “boat-people” crossed the sea in unseaworthy craft that sometimes sank; if they got to Palestine they were refused the right to land, or interned. In 1942, one unseaworthy boat, the Struma, driven out from a Turkish port and refused the right to land in Palestine, sank, killing 700 people, including children.

Leave the demonology aside here, for a moment Jim and what do you get? Jews threatened with annihilation - six million of whom would die - for whom it was a “world without a visa.”

For example, on the eve of World War Two a shipload of Jewish refugees - the St. Louis - sailed around the coasts of the Americas and, refused the right to unload its human cargo anywhere, had to go back to Europe. Almost all these people perished.

The idea that “the Zionists”, who indeed were, avowedly, in the business of getting Jews to Palestine, and whose leaders made statements to that effect - Jim Higgins quotes one - shaped and controlled this situation is ridiculous.

The idea that because Zionists wanted Jews in Palestine, therefore they would prefer them dead than have them elsewhere is grotesque.*

Jim Higgins’ malignant fairy tale level of anti-Zionist demonology is there in his tale about the 1943 Bermuda Conference. The good guy Roosevelt wanted to open the doors to Jewish refugees but was dissuaded by “the Zionists.” No Jim, two things were specifically excluded from the agenda at Bermuda: Palestine at Britain’s behest, and US immigration policy, at the insistence of the USA. That was just “the Zionists”?

In relation to what other groups of people would the utterly monstrous charges that are so casually bandied about, be even given a hearing? As I understand it, in both Britain and the USA at that time, the authorities kept quiet about the systematic killing of Jews for fear that to make much of it publicly would provide a backlash and the charge that this was “a Jewish war.” The “Zionists” who, according to Higgins, could tell Roosevelt in 1943 what his policy was to be couldn’t - and they tried - get the allies to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz to stop the death trains bringing victims to the ovens.

There was, over the ages, continued Jewish focus on Jerusalem - and always a small Jewish element in Palestine. The majority of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish at the turn of the century. The Jewish population built up slowly.

Why exactly was it ruled out that large numbers of Jews should come in here, even if that meant that they would eventually be a majority?

It is not just Zionist myth that desert and swamp and uncultivated land made up the greater part of the areas settled by Jews under the League of Nations Mandate.

What did the Communist International say about Jewish migration to Palestine?

When it was a communist movement, it did not oppose Jewish immigration into Palestine, though they opposed the Zionist project and called on Jewish and Arab workers and farmers to unite. They were not concerned that if enough Jews went to Palestine they would be the majority, or that the steady influx of Jews was creating a national minority, with great implications for the future. These were seen as living processes, self-regulating. The shift to something like Jim Higgins’ politics on the question came in the Communist International after 1929.

In the 30s Trotskyists did not share the Stalintern’s blinkered Arabism. The dominant line of the Trotskyists was not that Jews should not for anti-imperialist principle or out of deference to Muslim-Arab chauvinism flee to Palestine if they could get in but that Palestine could not possibly take enough of them for Zionism to be any solution to the threat they faced.

In fact, the Arab-Jewish conflict and its vicissitudes, is very complex. In the 20s there was a sizeable Arab migration into Palestine from surrounding territories as a result of the increased economic life attendant on the Zionist colonisation. Conflict erupted for cultural and religious reasons as well as for reasons of Arab resentment that Britain and the League of Nations had designated Palestine as a Jewish national home. In 1929 there were major elements in the pogroms of the backward Muslim countryside being raised against the urban heretical Jews. The aristocratic Muslim clans demagogically attacked the newcomers. These are recognisable processes and patterns in many countries.

I am not sure this complex of animosity on the part of Muslim society, led by landlords and priests who were the oppressors of the Arab peasantry, is something sacred, to which all else has to be subordinated; I’m not sure why the growing Jewish national minority in Palestine, who were in the grip of their own nationalist egotism, should have bowed down to Arab or Muslim national, cultural and religious egotism. Or from what point of view socialists should ask them to - or damn them to the third and fourth generation for refusing to.

For the Palestinian Arabs, I can understand such an attitude. For socialists? These things are generations back. Whatever the past rights and wrongs, the Israelis are now mainly people whose parents, and often their grand or great grandparents, were born there; and conversely the overwhelming majority of Palestinian “refugees” were not born in the territory that is now Israel.

Whatever it was in the past, it is a conflict now of right against right: consistent democrats and socialists seek the best “compromise” solution, rather than a solution that crushes one side. From what point of view other than a narrowly Jewish or Arab one, can either side claim all the right? So, we might if we were gods choose - given a real choice, I would - a secular common Jewish-Arab state with Arab and Jew sharing equal citizenship? Unfortunately, it has no purchase on reality, nor did it in the 1940s when the idea of a bi-national state had some support as the alternative to partition. It presupposes mass willingness to dissolve existing entities and national identities.

That does not exist on either side. The call for it functions only to demonise Israel and to legitimise the objective of subduing and crushing it. The good and desirable solution changes imperceptibly into a sanction for conquest, subjugation and as much violence to the Jews as necessary.

From an Arab nationalist point of view I can see the sense: but why should international socialists take responsibility for advocating or supporting the inverting of the present Jewish-Arab position? There can be no socialist or democratic reason.

But imperialism... A J Balfour somewhere talked of the Jewish colonists as creating a “little loyal Jewish Ulster” that would be England’s outpost. The actual course of events however is far more complex. Pretty quickly Britain concluded that the little loyal Jewish Ulster was more trouble than it was worth. By 1930 after the riots and pogroms of 1929 Sydney Webb with the initial backing of Prime Minister J R MacDonald, tried to kill off the Jewish National Home and retreated under fire.

After the Arab uprising of 36-38 Britain first came out for Partition (1937) and then retreated under Arab pressure until in 1939 it turned sharply against the Jews, closing the doors to Jewish immigration. On the eve of the Holocaust, Britain’s responsibility for the Jews, as Arabs saw it, had opened the possibility of an Arab-Nazi alliance in which Germany would use the Arabs against Britain as Britain had used them against the Turks in the First World War.

Britain maintained that hostile stance until it scuttled in 1947/8. The rigour and fanaticism with which Britain policed Palestine against Jewish refugees from 1939 to 1948 is a very ugly story.

Jim Higgins is right that fighting, including the indefensible massacre of Deir Yassin, preceded the Declaration of Israel; it is of no consequence. Britain had effectively abdicated the state power after the United Nations declared for partition in November 1947 and there was continuous fighting thereafter, with Jews and Arabs jockeying for position. Jewish Jerusalem suffered a long siege and the Jewish quarter of the old city fell to the Arabs. Deir Yassin is said to have been a link in the chain around Jerusalem, though nothing can excuse what happened there [it was immediately condemned by the mainstream Jewish forces].

The very next day nearly 60 Jewish medical personnel were ambushed and massacred…

In other words it was a horrible, communal war, involving outside Arab volunteers and then after 14th May 1948 invasion and attempted invasion by the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and a task force of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Inevitably, Israel has relied on its US alliance: the Arabs too have made such alliances - with Russia and the USA.

The idea that American imperialism depends on Israel for “control of the Arabs” when it has friendly links with Egypt and Jordan and Saudi-Arabia is so far from any reasonable picture of Middle-Eastern reality as to be risible. Conor Cruise O’Brien in his valuable book, The Siege, makes a convincing case that the USA’s relationship to Israel a) owes more to the power of the Zionist lobby in the USA than to anything else and b) has actually hindered the USA in pursuing its real interests in the area. Amongst other things he shows that there have been many ups and downs in the relationship. Israel has pursued its own interests, playing states off against each other.

I will join Jim Higgins in morally condemning the whole system of world and regional power politics: I will take it as evidence of bias and prejudice when he condemns only, or especially, the Israelis.

But then he is awash with prejudice. The conflict from November 1947, when Britain began the process of withdrawal, in which perhaps three-quarters of a million Arabs fled or were driven out can only be blamed on the Jews alone if you deny them the right to defend themselves against armed attack - in May 1948 by five armies.

Jim Higgins quotes Hal Draper.** The Trotskyists in 1948 did not support the Arabs! None of them, as far as I know, did. That sort of stuff came later.

Where in fact there was a war Jim has “Zionists” as the only aggressors: the “Zionists”, though they were under attack from November 1947 and earlier, “moved” in April 1948 - when Jewish Jerusalem was already besieged…

Where Jewish Jerusalem was besieged and fell, Jim sees only tales of Haganah attacking the Arab community in Jerusalem... Israel alone is the enemy of peace and socialism in the Middle East!

This is not history, not even on the level of honest narrative! Tell me Jim: should the Jews in 1948 have surrendered? Let themselves be massacred? Driven out? Where, in a world where Jewish Displaced Persons were still languishing in European camps, should they have gone? That wasn’t the Arabs’ problem? No, but it was the Jews’ problem: they resolved it by fighting and winning…

History is a messy business. Isaac Deutscher’s image for Jewish-Arab relations of the Jews as a man jumping out of the window of a burning building and accidentally injuring an innocent civilian down below, captures it, I think.

A Palestinian Arab state would be economically much weaker than the Jewish state? States have unequal wealth. He uses that as both an argument against the giant step forward for the Palestinians of having their own state and against the right of the Jewish nation not to be forced to dissolve itself!

It seems to me that in response to the tragic fate of the Palestinian Arabs, Jim Higgins and all his Arab nationalist co-thinkers in effect propose that we abandon a class interpretation of history in favour of an account in terms of good and bad peoples and the malignity of demonic forces like “Zionism”.

They abandon any attempt at an objective overall Marxist assessment of the history of the Arab-Jewish conflict, including factual accounts of what really happens and why. They settle uncritically into repeating the hurt account of the losers in a national conflict in which, had their side won in the 30s and 40s, they would have done to the other side everything that was done to them or worse. The underlying idea is that they would have had a right to…

Because Higgins and his co-thinkers are indignant at Israeli treatment of those they defeated, we demonise the Jews - “Zionists” - backwards in time for generations and forwards in time to the hoped-for day when the forces of progress, enlightenment, justice and righteousness - which just happen to include Saddam Hussein and the King of Saudi Arabia! - will triumph and conquer Israel.

They stigmatise Israel, surrounded by enemies, for its collaboration with imperialism, and ignore the connections of the Arab states with imperialism - right back to British-Arab collaboration during World War 2 to stop the Jewish national minority opening the gates of Palestine to Jews who otherwise faced annihilation.

They become vicarious Arab-nationalists who find unforgivable even after half a century the uneasy and conflict ridden Jewish-British collaboration in the late 30s and early 40s, and pardon with a benign shrug of complacent shoulders the collaboration of Palestinian Arabs and, in the first place their leader, Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, with the Nazis for the specific purposes of a common programme of wiping out the Jews, who tried to organise a Muslim brigade to fight for Hitler and whose supporters organised a sizeable anti-Jewish pogrom in Baghdad in 1941 during the pro-Nazi Iraq coup of Rashid Ali.

Your viewpoint, Jim, is shaped and determined mechanically and comprehensively by the taking of sides with the defeated side - the “oppressed.”

But suppose the other side had won: suppose, to tell the shortest version of the story, that the Nazis, and their despised Arab clients had won - even temporarily, as they might have in the Middle East in 1941-2 - and that the half million Palestinian Jews had gone the way of the six million in Europe? Why then our sympathy would now be on the other side - with “the poor, poor Jews.”

The Palestinian Jews are on the other side of your good people/bad people divide because they did not let themselves be crushed, because, in a limited sphere, they prevailed.

Your standpoint has no point of contact with Marxism or even with the old-fashioned belief in the equality of peoples. For Marxists there are no bad peoples: conflicts between competing peoples contain more or less of a tragic element of right as against right. We look to working-class unity and reconciliation.

Socialists support the Palestinian Arab demand for liberation and justice - that is, for self-determination in an independent state on the territory where they now constitute a majority - but we do not demonise one people, or erect Zionism into a demon-ex-machina force above history: we see it in history; that is, we look at the real history, recognising that this is the only basis on which to prepare the force - the minds of the working class, Arab and Jewish - for the fundamental solution to the conflict: consistent democracy and socialism.

* Jim Higgins’ equation of the nationalist machinations of bourgeois Zionists during the war with the cold statement of Tony Cliff decades after the Holocaust that Jews should have been barred from Palestine before the war is very revealing.

** The quote from Hal Draper is misleading. Draper was a bitter critic of Israel; in the 50s he published very scathing and, from anything other than a Jewish chauvinist point of view, unanswerable accounts of the systematic expropriation of Arab land within Israel. Draper continued to advocate the “de-Zionisation” of Israel. But he was not in favour of the subjugation and destruction of Israel. More to the point, the Workers’ Party in the 40s was outspokenly in favour of the right of Jews to go to Palestine. They wrote it into the programme they printed each week in Labor Action! It was a bone of contention between themselves and the Cannon organisation. The truth is that Jim Higgins’ politics and Tony Cliff’s politics on this question come out of the degenerating “Fourth International” of Pablo and Cannon, which broke in the 40s with the old Communist International and Leon Trotsky’s position on this question of Jewish migration. Tony Cliff, the honorary Arab nationalist, was one of the theorists of this break and descent into vicarious Arab revolution.

I am an anti-Zionist because I am an anti-racist!

By Jim Higgins

Arguing with Sean Matgamna is rather like wrestling with a warm jelly and, despite my long-term experience with the gelatinous character of his political method, I was foolhardy enough to agree to his request to enter the debate flowing from his article: Paul Foot: Philo-Semite (if I am not mistaken this means a lover of Jews).

This I did, under the proposed headline: Sean Matgamna: Philo-Pede which means lover of feet. The article actually appeared with another, quite inappropriate headline: A Secular Democratic State says Jim Higgins.

This is inappropriate for two reasons. 1. Nowhere in my article do I call for a secular-democratic state. 2. I do not believe in a secular-democratic state. The reason for the headline is presumably to justify such absurdities as Sean’s accusation that I am, along with Foot and Cliff, a sufferer from “vicarious Arab chauvinism.”

It would seem that if the PLO has the demand inscribed on its banner then, according to Sean’s brand of chop-logic, anti-Zionists must adhere to it as well. I do not know if Tony Cliff or Paul Foot subscribe to the secular-democratic formulation. If Cliff does I would lay a fair shade of odds that Foot does too, but what either of them think is a matter of supreme indifference to me. I am, though, virtually certain that Cliff and Foot are not anti-semitic and I know for sure that I am not and I take strong exception to Sean suggesting that this is the case. One of the reasons I have agreed, after further urgent representations from Sean Matgamna, to write this piece is to take the opportunity to protest at his inability to debate without characterising his opponents as racists. I am an anti-racist and that is the primary reason why I am also anti-Zionist.

I was not seeking in my piece in Workers’ Liberty to write a history of Arab-Jewish relations in the Middle East, merely responding to various dubious statements by Sean. He wrote in Workers’ Liberty 32: “In fact Israel was proclaimed in May 1948, in territory allotted by the UN, without any Arabs being expelled. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs did flee - the great majority not expelled - after Arab states, with the backing naturally enough of the Palestinian Arabs, invaded Israel.”

In my reply I pointed out that in April 1948, according to a strategy worked out in January of that year, the Irgun bombarded Jaffa for three days, Haganah attacked the Arabs in Jerusalem, and the Irgun and the Stern Gang carried out the massacre at Deir Yessin. It was these three events that set in motion, as was the intention, the Palestinian refugees. Sean does not dispute the facts that make nonsense of his original assertion, his response to his mildly expressed correction is pure bluster: “Jim offers us only tales of Haganah attacking the Arab community in Palestine… Tell me Jim,” he says, “should the Jews in 1948 have surrendered?” How about that for a piece of bare-faced impudence. In April Israeli forces attack and Sean thinks their only alternative was to surrender. How about the alternative of not attacking the Arab community in Jerusalem? How about not shelling Jaffa? What say you to not killing 250 men, women and children in Deir Yessin?

Why, readers of Workers’ Liberty might as, do people go on about Deir Yessin? After all, they might say, 250 dead Arabs is terrible enough, but it is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the millions of Jews lost in the Holocaust? The reason why Deir Yessin is so important and why the deaths should not be forgotten, or brushed aside as a matter of little consequence is that these people died because they were Arabs. They had done nothing to offend the Zionists. Nothing at all. The villagers had refused to allow Arab irregulars to fortify the place. They had a non-aggression agreement with Jewish settlers in the area. An agreement they faithfully carried out.

It was precisely because of this, because they were Arabs living at peace with their Jewish neighbours, that they were killed and their houses reduced to rubble. It is worth repeating, they died because they were Arabs. The few pathetic survivors of Deir Yessin were paraded in triumph through Jerusalem, what any survivors of Hitler’s death camps thought about this one can only speculate. (For those interested in a fuller discussion of the Deir Yessin massacre there is a wealth of documentation, but the one that may be most authoritative for WL adherents is by Hal Draper in Israel’s Arab Minority: The Beginning of a Tragedy, New International Vol XXII No.2 1956 from which this account is taken.)

It is absurd, but apparently necessary, to have to tell Sean that racism is indivisible. Just one dead child because he or she is an Arab, or a Jew, or Irish or a Red Indian is exactly one more than any self-respecting socialist can countenance and is quite enough to condemn the perpetrators. If Sean thinks that Deutscher’s analogy, of the man jumping out of a burning building and landing on some innocent pedestrian, is appropriate to Deir Yessin, or any of the actions of April 1947, then I can only suggest that he seeks urgent advice about the moral vacuum in his consciousness. The analogy would be better if it involved a man burning down another man’s house and when the owner rushed out to avoid the flames, directing him to a tent on the other side of the Jordan.

I have neither the time not the inclination to follow Sean through every irrelevancy with which he chooses to pad out his reply. Nevertheless, I would like to take up a couple of his additional attempts to rewrite history included in his two nations piece. The Comintern he suggests, in its brave days, was not opposed to Jewish immigration into Palestine. Wrong. At the second congress of the Comintern, The Theses on the National and Colonial Question, drafted and introduced by Lenin, says in part: “… Zionism as a whole, which, under the pretence of creating a Jewish state in Palestine in fact surrenders the Arab working people of Palestine, where the Jewish workers form only a small minority, to exploitation by England.” Or the ECCI statement of July 1922 on the question of Poale Zion: “… the attempt to divert the Jewish working masses from the class struggle by propaganda in favour of large scale settlement in Palestine is not only nationalist and petty bourgeois but counter-revolutionary…” (Degras Vol 1 p144 and p366). In late 1923 the Palestine Communist Party was formed, and admitted as a section of the CI, on a programme of opposition to the “Anglo-Zionist occupation.” Where Sean gets the idea that the CI was not opposed to Jewish settlement in Palestine is a mystery.

Next we have Sean co-opting Trotsky as one of those not opposed to Jewish immigration to Palestine. Wrong again, Sean. All his life Trotsky was firmly opposed to Zionism and on occasion wrote and spoke against it with some vigour. Around the beginning of 1937 he reformulated his ideas after seeing the extent of anti-semitism in Germany and Russia. He came to the view that the Jews, even under socialism, would require a “territorial solution.” According to Deutscher: “He did not believe, however, that this would be in Palestine, that Zionism would be able to solve the problem, or that it could be solved under capitalism. The longer decaying bourgeois society survives, he argued, the more vicious and barbarous will anti-semitism grow all over the world.” (Deutscher The Prophet Outcast, footnote p.369).

Sean does not even acknowledge the client status that Zionism gladly performed for first British and then American imperialism, a fairly serious omission for a socialist you might think. He ignores the fact that Israel’s existence has had a profoundly reactionary effect on the region and that is one of the reasons that the major powers conspired in its founding. The Arab revolution has been put back and the Arab masses have suffered every kind of repressive regime, from the pre-feudal primitives of the House of Saud to the murderous tyranny of Saddam Hussein, taking in on the way the clownish Arafat whose tiny statelet requires several police forces and where even the fire brigade maintains its own jail. All this, one assumes, should be of concern to socialists, even those of the bureaucratic collectivist persuasion. This legacy of 1948 and the previous 50 years of Zionist endeavour have destabilised the region in which Israel has pursued an aggressive and expansive nationalism and where Israelis live in neurotic insecurity that is in no way strengthened by possession of nuclear weaponry.

In July 1940 Trotsky wrote that: “…the salvation of the Jewish people is bound up inseparably with the overthrow of the capitalist system.” It is just as true today as it was 56 years ago.

Anti-racism is indivisible

By Sean Matgamna

Let us start where this debate started, with Cliff and the SWP. There was a sea-change on the Israel-Palestine question in the post-Trotsky Trotskyist movement in the middle and late 1940s.

Tony Cliff, who left Palestine in September 1946, played a central role as an ideologist of this change. His pamphlet Middle East At The Crossroads (1946) was published in at least three languages; he was boosted in the SWP-USA’s internationally-circulated Militant, after the Cannonite fashion, as one of the Great Marxists whose “method” allowed him to understand things obscure to everyone else, etc. etc. In the SWP-USA internal bulletin Cliff functioned as a hatchet-man against an opposition (Goldman-Morrow) sharing the Shachtmanite Workers’ Party’s support for free Jewish immigration into Palestine, which was a big issue between the WP and the SWP-USA.

Cliff’s 1946 pamphlet does not deal at all adequately with the political questions in the Middle East, having more to say about the price of oil than about the rights of national minorities. Where concrete politics should have been, there was a vacuum; and, to fill that vacuum, the “official” Trotskyists took the Arab nationalist line against the Jewish minority in Palestine. In the US Militant, for example, it was said candidly that any line other than opposition to Jewish immigration and to a Jewish state would isolate the Trotskyists from the “Arab Revolution”. This catch-penny opportunist adaptation to Arab chauvinism foreshadowed later attitudes.

Between 1948 and 1973, however, there was in the Trotskyist press a tacit acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. In 1967, after the Six Day War, Tony Cliff wrote a pamphlet which is closer in its political conclusions and implied conclusions to what Workers’ Liberty says than to what the SWP and Jim Higgins say now. The decisive shift came after 1967, and was brought to the present level of nonsense after the Yom Kippur war of 1973. The “honour” of having established the post-1973 IS/SWP line belongs, I think, to none other than Jim Higgins (in an article in IS Journal).

Obviously, the “objective” explanation for the shift is the fact that pre-partition Palestine had once again been united, but under Jewish rule - brutal, predatory colonial rule in the Arab-majority areas. It had, however, been prepared for by decades of ambivalence and confusion. There was a general drift on the left, an often unexamined acceptance of the new Palestine Liberation Organisation policy of a secular democratic state as the solution.

We (the forerunners of Workers’ Liberty) went along with the drift, for the same reason, I guess, as everybody else - hostility to Israel’s brutal colonialism and wishful thinking about what a secular democratic state meant. In my own case, that was the culpable delusion that it could mean a state in which Jew and Arab could be equal citizens.

Cliff’s personal role in this history has been a big one, and not only in Britain. Now I don’t share Jim Higgins’s feelings of being cheated and betrayed by Cliff, since I was never other than politically antagonistic to him. The old factionalism in IS was by its nature often nasty, but there was not on Cliff’s part much gratuitous nastiness. God knows what 25 years of being Tsar and Caliph of the SWP has done to his brain by now, but I found him then a more than halfway decent human being.

Yet Cliff has been a carrier of a poison to the left he influences. He gets away with it, to a large extent, because of his origins in Palestine. In practice he is an unteachable Arab chauvinist. That is paradoxical only if you don’t know the history of the Communist Party of Palestine, in which Cliff claims to have received his political education. Take Cliff at his word that he was in the CPP in the mid 1930s, and you have a self-portrait of someone who, a Jew, was part of an organisation in which young Jews were heavily brainwashed into extremes of hostility to the Jewish community.

Cliff first appears in the English-language Trotskyist press in 1938-9, in discussion pieces in the American magazine New International. It is serious work by a young man trying to think things through. The political conclusions are vague and unclear, yet he is for the right of Jews to go to Palestine as a refuge from persecution.

He next appears in the English-language press in 1944, in the British Workers’ International News as a fierce, almost modern-day, “anti-Zionist”. (It is an unsigned article, but the scissors-and-paste technique, incorporating bits of his 1930s articles, strongly suggests Cliff). In this article, aimed to influence British labour movement opinion, much is made of a Jewish demonstration against Arab produce being on sale in what they wanted to be a Jewish-only area. This, in a world where the Holocaust was still going on, and where Jewish refugees were being killed and interned, as a result of British state policy, when they tried to get into Palestine! Cliff would regale audiences in the late 1960s with the same story. The sense of proportion and perspective are, as always, crazy. The publication of that article then in the Trotskyist press was, in my opinion, evidence of the movement’s radical disorientation.

Later, with the 1946 pamphlet, Cliff became one of international Trotskyism’s two “authorities” on the Palestine question (or, with Ernest Mandel, three). The other was Abram Leon, who died at the hands of the Nazis in 1944, and whose unfinished historical writings, shaped and edited by Ernest Mandel, were published posthumously, eventually in book form (The Jewish Question). Neither the dead Leon nor the living Cliff had much to say about the politics of national conflict in Palestine.

Leon had an account of Jewish history which quickly became an article of factional faith for people who had no independent means of judging it (though in my view Maxime Rodinson makes a convincing case against Leon’s thesis). Cliff offered mainly an economic analysis, slotted into Arabist anti-imperialism.

Whatever intrinsic merits they may have had, for the purposes of politics the writings of both Cliff and (though the dead man, unlike Cliff, can hardly be blamed for it) Leon were a species of pseudo-knowledge, offering no political answers. The political conclusions were filled in by chameleon adaptation to Arab nationalism, which was seen as part of the “colonial revolution” segment of the imminent world revolution. There was a clear parallel between the method of the disoriented Trotskyists and that of the Third Period Stalinism after 1929. Post-Trotsky Trotskyism, in its degeneracy, had found a use for the personal history and prejudices of Tony Cliff!

Cliff separated from Mandel and the “official” Trotskyists in 1950. After a silence of two decades on the Israel/Palestine question, he resumed in 1967 and after as if he were still in the 1930s, fighting old factional battles with Zionists in Palestine. At the end of the 1960s, he revived what had been mid-1930s CPP policy on Palestine. Others did the same, but Cliff had a special authority. Cliff could get away with bias, double standards, Arab chauvinism, and outright hatred of the Israelis, where others could not.

It is to Cliff’s credit that as a youth he sided with the most downtrodden people around him, the Palestinian Arabs. It was not enough, however, and his present attitude probably has twisted roots. Cliff is obviously guilt-stricken about the terrible fate of the Palestinian Arabs, but that does not explain his savage hostility to the Palestinian/Israeli Jews. Isn’t there in his attitude also guilt about surviving the Holocaust, safe, as it turned out, in Palestine? His feelings about the Jewish national minority in Palestine were, after all, about the pre-1946 Palestinian-Jewish national minority - those who, like himself, survived; and he experienced a violent shift between 1939 and 1944. Cliff’s vicarious Arab chauvinist hatred for Israel may well be a somewhat unusual form of self-hatred. Long-range “assassin psychoanalysis” is of course of limited use, though Cliff’s role demands and licences it and strips away his right to privacy on this issue.


It is a pity that Jim Higgins’s ‘humour’ has gone and is replaced by choler, rodomontade, unleavened abuse, some of it purely personal, and by evident social embarrassment before his SWP friends and former comrades. Protesting that Paul Foot, Tony Cliff, and the SWP are “a matter of supreme indifference” to him, he is nevertheless at pains to explain publicly how he came to get involved in a discussion with vile people like ourselves. He seems to offer an over-the-shoulder apology for it.

It did take a long argumentative letter from me to persuade him to reply to my reply. I hoped for serious argument. In vain. He declines to take up the reasoned case I made over three pages of the last Workers’ Liberty, and focuses instead on repeating points made or conceded [1], and on red herrings. He has neither time nor space to deal with the central thing I said, and argued in some detail - that the appearance of a Jewish state in the middle of the 20th century can be understood only in terms of a complex history and not in terms of a demonised devil-ex-machina “Zionism.” I asked the not entirely rhetorical question why the Jewish minority, a third of the population of Palestine in the 1940s, did not have national rights there. He declines to reply. Did they or didn’t they? If not, why not? If they did, then they had a right to defend themselves in 1948, and the entire elaborate scheme in which “Zionism” is the cause of all evil dissolves into a series of concrete questions, on each of which Israeli policy can be evaluated and if necessary denounced - as we denounce Israel’s behaviour in the occupied territories now, for example.

Jim Higgins does have time and space, however, to protest that I killed the very obscure and never very strong joke he put as a headline on his piece. (It was in Latin! Tridentine Trotskyism?)

With more justification, he is angry about the headline we put on his piece. He says we misrepresented his position. I offer him my apologies for it. But I can not see that the mistaken headline strengthened the case for my allegation that Jim Higgins (and Cliff and Paul Foot) are Arab chauvinists.


Jim Higgins wrote - and, of course, we printed - “What is needed is a secular Arab-Jewish state based on socialism and democracy in all of Palestine”.

I take it that he means by socialism what I mean: democratic working-class power. If so, then there are two problems.

Everywhere the Arab working class is in the grip of Islamic chauvinism, or at best secular populism. It has been and is crushed, politically, under the weight of dictatorial states. It is potentially very powerful, but it has as yet scarcely begun to realise itself politically, or to emerge as a “class for itself”. It will, but we cannot gauge how soon.

Therefore, as any sort of immediate solution, socialism in the Middle East - if you mean working-class socialism - is a non-starter. Suppose, however, that there were a powerfully organised and more or less international-socialist working-class mass movement in the Middle East now, with a real possibility of taking power in the short or medium term. What would be its programme for the smaller non-Arab nationalities in the Middle East - Jews, Kurds, Armenians? What programme would we advocate? One of two things: either this mainly-Arab socialist working-class mass movement would be suicidally poisoned by Arab (and probably Muslim) chauvinism and obscurantism, or it would have a Leninist policy on the non-Arab peoples.

“Socialism” would resolve the issues in Israel/Palestine only if the mainly-Arab socialist mass movement had such a Leninist, that is a consistently democratic, working-class programme. The Bolsheviks in 1917 did not only say to the oppressed nationalities in the old Tsarist empire: “socialism is the answer”. They had a democratic - Leninist - programme on the national question. They advocated the right of self-determination for all peoples where they were the compact majority; preached the indifference of consistent democrats and socialists to existing state borders; repudiated all national revanchism. On that basis, they advocated the unity of the working class, and consistent socialist policies, across all national and communal divisions.

Jim Higgins will agree with that in general - but he will exclude the Israeli Jewish nation from the application of the general principles. For them, the film of 20th century history will be rolled back. To the Israeli Jewish workers, though to the workers of no other nation, international socialism will be presented as an ultimatum. Dissolve your national state - instantly! Now! - or be forced to. Surrender your right to be a compact nation, or be forced to.

The secular democratic state meant - whatever various left-wingers understood it to mean, and wanted it to mean - an Arab Palestine with religious (not national) rights for such Jews as survived the process of Arab conquest necessary to get their state dismantled. If the solution Jim Higgins favours - “a secular Arab-Jewish state based on socialism and democracy in all of Palestine” - is really democratic in the sense that Lenin’s, Trotsky’s, and the Communist International’s national programme was democratic, then, even after the working class in the whole region has taken power, it will include the right of the Israeli Jewish nation to keep its own state, and the right of the Kurds, Armenians, and others to set up their own national states. If it does not do that, then it will be neither democratic nor socialist.

The “smash Israel” policy can not be squared with socialist or democratic politics by reference to the Palestinian Arab refugees. For here, too, the “solution” favoured by many socialists is unique to Israel. Nobody on the left argues that the Poles, in areas which are now Poland, should make way for the ten million Germans driven out of those areas in 1945, or for their many millions of descendants - or that we should insist on a joint Polish-German state to allow for it. Nobody on the left argues for reclaiming the Sudetenland for the three million Germans driven out of what was then Czechoslovakia in 1945, or their many millions of children. Nobody on the left has any time for the German revanchists who talk of such things. Israel is special.

Socialism in its early stages will radically soften national antagonisms, but it will not dissolve nations. The socialists who would inscribe on their banners or their VDUs the demand that nations should immediately dissolve - in this case, that one nation amidst competing nations should dissolve - would be not Marxists but anarchists. Their attitude would be wildly ultra-left in theory, and in practice mean vapid self-removal from real politics, leaving a vacuum to be filled by something other than the consistent democracy in these affairs which Leninists argue for.

The entire tenor and substance of what he wrote in WL 33 - malignantly anti-Israel and wildly prejudiced comic-book history - suggests that Jim Higgins agrees with the SWP, whose essentially meaningless “socialist” solution leaves them free to back Arab chauvinists and militarists against Israel? [2] Or does he have nothing to say at all about immediate politics except “socialism is the answer”? The outright Arab chauvinists. Cliff and Foot, draw their conclusions. When Jim Higgins says that their practical politics do not define them as Arab chauvinists, that - to me - brands him as one too. Can it be that you don’t know that, Jim? [3]


The pre-1929 Communist International rejected, opposed and denounced the Zionist project. I said this, and then asserted that nevertheless neither they, nor Trotsky in the 1930s, opposed Jewish migration into Palestine, as the post-1930 Stalintern and the “orthodox” Trotskyists from the mid-40s did. The Leninists and Trotskyists believed in the free movement of workers to Palestine as elsewhere in the world. Jim Higgins replies by citing evidence for what I said, in the form of quotations. Thank you Jim! The political descriptions and denunciations he cites are about Zionism as a political ideology and as a practical project which involved a favourable attitude to British imperialist occupation of Palestine. Of course the Communist International was against British occupation, which the Zionists favoured - and that is what the quotation about “Anglo-Zionist occupation” means.

When the Communists appealed to Jewish workers to stay in the class struggle in the countries where they were, and not to go in for utopian-socialist colony-building in Palestine, Higgins equates that with advocacy of the exclusion of Jews from Palestine. In doing so, he is reading later attitudes backwards, anachronistically. Jews were not, and were not considered to be, identical with Zionism. Most Jews, including Jews fleeing persecution, were then, unlike now, not Zionists. The Communist International’s opposition to Zionism did not take the form of advocacy of or support for the exclusion of Jews, still less of support for Arab/Muslim chauvinism against them.

The Communist Party of Palestine was throughout the 1920s almost entirely Jewish, beginning as a break from the socialist Zionists, Poale Zion. Against Zionism, they advocated Jewish-Arab worker and peasant unity in Palestine. Demonisation was not part of it, though rough polemic was. The Histadrut could, for example, take a stall at a workers’ gathering in Moscow in 1923.

The Communist Party of Palestine competed with the Zionists for the allegiance of the Jewish workers: they advocated neither their own expulsion - though the British were normally eager to expel Jewish Communists - nor the exclusion of Jewish workers who, for whichever of many possible reasons, wanted to enter Palestine. According to one report, when the anti-Jewish movement began in 1929, the small Executive Committee of the CP, all Jews, was meeting in an Arab village and had to be rescued by the Jewish defence force, the Haganah; the CP turned over guns to aid the Jewish self-defence. Then the line was changed in Third Period Moscow and the pogroms were redefined as part of a holy anti-imperialist crusade. After a post-1929 Stalinist “Arabisation” drive which insisted that the main leaders be Arabs in a party of supposed equals, still consisting mostly of Jews, Jews were made second-class citizens in the Communist Party of Palestine.

The Trotskyists at the time did not go along with the Stalinist line on the 1929 movement (see Max Shachtman, Militant, October 1929). Later, in the 1930s, the American Militant published an outraged report, based on an article by ex-Stalinist Malech Epstein in the social-democratic Yiddish daily Forward, that the Communist Party of Palestine was sending young Jewish members to plant bombs among Jews.


The Deir Yassin massacre was denounced by the mainstream Zionist leaders when it happened. I neither defended nor justified nor excused it, though I did put it in its historical context. Deir Yassin was the work of a Jewish group against which the mainstream Zionists were prepared to wage civil war a few months later!

Higgins raises it again because it is easier to beat the reverberating drums of big atrocity than to reason about the overall picture. He says he raises it because it was an act of racism - “these people died because they were Arabs” - though how to distinguish between ideological racism and nationalism in a “civil war” situation like that of 1948 might perplex a more cautious man. “Racism is indivisible”, he says. “Just one dead child because he or she is an Arab, or a Jew, or Irish or a Red Indian, is exactly one more than any self-respecting socialist can countenance and is quite enough to condemn the perpetrator.”

Agreed! I’ll vote for that with both hands. If it will carry greater conviction, I’ll prick my thumb and sign a resolution to that effect in my own blood. But what is this fine universalist principle doing in this debate, in the mouth of someone who is a passionate partisan of one side, to the extreme of wanting to force the other people to dissolve as a national entity? How does it square with the double-standard-skewed one-sidedness of what he says about the Arab-Jewish conflict? Can Jim Higgins really think that no Jews have died because they were Jews at the hands of Arabs and Muslims? In which case he needs only to be reminded that, for example, 60 Jewish religious teachers and pupils were massacred in Hebron in 1929 - they were not Zionists - and he will change sides. Or understand that socialists need an overview and an overall programme for the whole complex of issues.

In fact, though, the universalist principle is just empty rhetoric, isn’t it? It is a common enough gambit. The Provisional IRA paper, An Phoblacht has, for example, a convincing line in anti-sectarianism - directed against the other side and used to bolster with self-righteousness similar attitudes on its own side.

Anti-racism is indivisible, Jim, but someone who uses talk of the “indivisibility” as a means of damning one side in the interests of the other, which has also killed children, is a hypocrite.

It is “absurd but evidently necessary” to point out to you, Jim, that though one dead child may be and is enough to condemn its killers, the idea that the cause - or in this case the entire people to which the killers belonged - is thereby condemned, is either the theme of a note resigning from the sinful human race before going into the desert to found a utopian-socialist colony, or something you write just before you blow your brains out. Otherwise it is a lot of flabby-minded old guff. Hypocritical or hysterical guff.

I accused Jim Higgins of being “awash with prejudice”, citing his demonising “history” as proof and refuting it. Now he passionately defends himself - and, I think, the SWP - against a charge I never made, that of “racism”. No, Jim, I don’t think you or the SWP are racist, that you subscribe to zoological theories about some peoples being inferior, that you are predisposed towards hostility to individual Jews, or any similar idiocy. I know that I was not a racist when I held views very like yours.

The views you hold about Israel do, however, commit you to a pretty comprehensive hostility to Jews who will not endorse your fervently held anti-Zionism or join you in branding Israeli-Jewish nationalists as racists - Jews into whose identity Israel has been incorporated and who will, not always gently, defend Israel’s right to exist. Your views commit you to making the Israeli Jews an exception to the general principles you proclaim for every other nation. They commit you to advocating the destruction of the Israeli-Jewish state: you can not believe that in the calculable future the state of Israel will voluntarily be liquidated and subsumed into something higher. They commit you to an emotion-charged propagation of Arab-chauvinist myths and thinly made-over old-fashioned anti-semitic caricatures of Jews.

All that, Jim, may not be anti-Jewish racism, but it shares the essential element common to all the various anti-semitisms of history, be they religious, nationalist, or zoological-racist: comprehensive hostility to most or all Jews alive. The tub-thumping and fulminating that you are not a racist can not suppress the fact that your attitude is a form of anti-semitism. Since you want Jews to “convert” from the identification with Israel which a terrible history has stamped on modern Jewish consciousness, your attitude has more in common with the old Christian anti-semitism, which wanted to save the souls of Jews even if it had to burn their bodies, than with the racism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Insisting that you are not a racist is here a means, and perhaps also an internal psychological mechanism, for evading the plain implications of what you say. Even if you draw no practical conclusions from your demonisation of Israel, others will and do. At best there is a division of labour.

Higgins in an earlier contribution to Workers’ Liberty showed undisguised bitterness towards Tony Cliff. He doesn’t seem to notice that the worst thing Cliff did to him was to poison him with anti-semitic anti-Zionism.


1. My original article confused things by hanging the story on the date of Israel’s declaration of independence. I said that this was of no consequence for the process described. Jim Higgins ignores that, but repeats the point. Yet he himself made a similar inconsequential slip, seeming to date the United Nations resolution not in November 1947 but in April 1948.

2. You might, developing Lenin’s analysis of “Economism” and then “Imperialist Economism”, call this line “Arab Nationalist Economism” - a happy marriage of the general economistic method of the SWP with Cliff’s personal prejudice.

3. I hold no brief for the idea that the ousted one-time leaders of the IS/SWP such as Jim Higgins possess special, or even ordinary, levels of sharpness in political understanding. Rather the opposite. In a reasonably wide experience I have never elsewhere encountered anything like the Malvolio-like collective self-conceit, snobbery and self-satisfaction, built on small achievement, that I saw in the leading circles of the IS group, and see now in Jim Higgins’s article. Disdaining any attempt to be consistent Leninists, this group of eclectic sectarians found themselves in the late 1960s, unexpectedly, in very favourable circumstances. They blundered about for a while, helped Cliff create a monstrosity of an organisation, wasted a tremendous opportunity, and then abandoned the field of politics to Pope Tony and his toy-town Bolshevik “party”. They could not understand what was happening in the organisation they “led”, not even when it was pointed out to them in plain English; and they have not understood it yet. But Jim, even you can not but be aware that if socialism and democracy is the answer, then it can only be in the sense of working-class politics and equal rights for all nations, and therefore that demonisation of Israel is no part of it. You can not but know that what you write is grist to the mill of the SWP who back Saddam Hussein and Assad of Syria against Israel.

4. There is a subtext in this discussion: repeated attempts to cite Hal Draper as for us high general authority against what we say now. This is a misunderstanding. On the concrete questions of the Jewish-Arab conflict such as the right of Jews to go to Palestine, the Shachtman organisation was right, in my opinion. Draper was generally right in his criticism of Israel, though a lot of what he wrote on Israel reminds me of the legendary bird without feet unable to alight, doomed forever to hover high above the ground. But Draper was on our side as against Higgins, Cliff et al. He was in favour of Israel’s right to exist. James D Young tells a story of an encounter between Cliff and Draper on the question in the late 50s. After a meal in London, Draper, Cliff, Young and others are sitting around a table, the taciturn Draper silent, the talkative Cliff talking - about Israel. Suddenly Draper turns on Cliff in irritation and accuses him: “You want to destroy the Israeli Jews! I don’t!”

The arrogance of the long-distance Zionist

By Jim Higgins

This will be the third time that I have ventured to disagree with Sean Matgamna on the vexed question of Zionism.

I do so with some trepidation because, or so it seems, even when I am right I am in reality exposing myself as fundamentally wrong and mischievously so. In my first article I attempted to lighten the subject with a few mildly humorous quips. I was sternly rebuked for this failure of seriousness. Chastened, in part two I adopted a serious tone. Sean responded by regretting my humour had been replaced by ‘choler, rodomontade, unleavened abuse, some of it purely personal...’ Did I really do all of that? I feel particularly cheered to hear that I was guilty of choler and rodomontade, rather like the man who discovered at an advanced age that he had been speaking prose all his life. Normally, of course, I only use unleavened abuse during Passover. Sorry about that.

Having reviewed Sean’s articles I can see that they fit quite nicely into the Matgamna mode of polemic. First and foremost, his views are lumped together in such a way that they will sharply divide him from other socialists. This is what Al Richardson calls ‘consumer socialism’ and Marx calls ‘sectarianism.’ In practice, this means that since Bernard Dix died, there have been no adherents of the Shachtmanite school of bureaucratic collectivism on these shores and if Sean were to occupy this vacant franchise he would acquire a whole slew of policies to differentiate himself from everybody else. All you need is a file of the New International (published monthly between 1936 and 1958) and you can start to kid yourself you are writing with all the style and eloquence of Max Shachtman. Along with all the clever nonsense about Russia you will also inherit the Workers’ Party - International Socialist League line on Israel.

A comparison of Sean’s article with a sampling of the WP-ISL texts shows that whatever Sean lacks in originality he has made up for in the diligence of his researches into the New International. In the September issue of Workers’ Liberty we have Sean as follows: ‘Cliff’s 1946 pamphlet does not deal at all with the political questions in the Middle East, having more to say about the price of oil than about the rights of national minorities. Where politics should have been there is a vacuum…’ Now here is Al Gates in the New International in September 1947: ‘T Cliff’s competent analytical work on Palestine, and here too we observed a fine study of the economic growth and problems of the Middle East and the place of Palestine in that situation. Yet the whole work was outstanding for its studied evasion of the political questions of the class and national struggle taking place there.’

Gates is more polite than Sean, but that will probably surprise nobody.

Another standard feature of Sean’s method is the one where he complains bitterly that he is being abused unfairly as a prelude to unleashing a little of his own venom into the argument. For example, I raised the case of Deir Yassin because it took place in April 1948 and set in motion the Arab refugees, countering Sean who had said that they only fled in May 1948 when the Arab armies started their offensive. In so doing I neglected to mention the killing of 60 Jews by Arabs in the bloody attacks of 1929. For this I was accused of hypocrisy. Perhaps now I should go on to apologise for failing to condemn the similar Arab outrages of 1920, 1921, 1929, 1936 and 1938. In the interests of balance perhaps I should also throw in the massacres of Sabra and Chatila, because I condemn them as well. In the same vein, Sean insists that he does not believe that I, or the SWP, are racist, but in virtually the same breath he repeats his accusation that we are anti-semitic. This does not come from the WP-ISL, I have nowhere in the pro-Israel polemics of Al Gates and the rest seen them accuse their socialist opponents of anti-semitism. For that we must look to official Zionist spokesmen and Sean Matgamna. It is, I suppose, always nice to have two sources of inspiration.

Let us now turn to Sean’s predilection for discovering sinister and malign purposes in the work of others and constructing a sort of retrospective amalgam. About a quarter of his piece is devoted to a partial and not very informative trawl through Cliff’s works on the Middle East. On the strength of his 1946 pamphlet Middle East at the Crossroads, this apparently made Cliff, along with Abram Leon, one of the Fourth International’s two experts on the Jewish question. Unfortunately, Leon was killed by the Nazis, so after 1946 Cliff must have stood pre-eminent, although Sean assigns a subordinate role to Ernest Mandel. Thus we have the sinister Cliff leading the Fl along the road of ‘anti-semitic anti-Zionism.’ Unfortunately, by the time Sean got round to this particular fantasy he had forgotten what he had written on the previous page: ‘In 1967, after the Six Day War, Cliff wrote a pamphlet which is closer in its political conclusions and implied conclusions to what Workers’ Liberty says than to what the SWP or Jim Higgins say now. The decisive shift came after 1967 and was brought to the present level of nonsense after the Yom Kippur war of 1973. The ‘honour’ of having established the post 1973 IS/SWP line belongs, I think, to none other than Jim Higgins (in an article in IS Journal).’

There you have it, comrade readers, Cliff set the style for the FI and especially the American SWP, except that until 1973 his views were not much different from those of Workers’ Liberty, which I assume are the same as Sean’s. Far from Cliff being the deus ex machina of anti-Zionist anti-semitism, I am. In International Socialism No.64 in 1973, I wrote this seminal offending piece, ‘Background to the Middle East Crisis.’ At the same time, the ground-breaking significance of the article passed without a murmur. Nobody, including the author, was aware that it was any more than a very short explanation of the IS Group’s attitude to the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, which I had reported for Socialist Worker. In the 23 years since it was written probably only Sean Matgamna has read it. Now that Sean, with Holmes-like skill, has unmasked me as the eminence grise of ‘non-racist anti-semitic anti-Zionism’. I too have read it, and regret that it has no claims, subliminal or otherwise, to trend-setting originality.

Delving further into the Matgamna polemical method we encounter that special form of arrogance that insists on setting all the terms of any debate and finding significance in a failure to follow him up any logical blind alley he may choose. Let us then consider his ‘serious and not entirely rhetorical question, why the Jewish minority, a third of the population in the 1940s, did not have national rights there.’ Let us leave aside the fact that rhetorical questions are precisely the ones that are not looking for answers, and think about this one. First, in those terms of realpolitik to which Sean is so addicted, who was to afford them national determination in the 1930s and 1940s? Was it the Arab majority? Not a bit of it, the very notion of any kind of accommodation with the Arab majority was totally anathema to the Zionist leadership. Should they have addressed themselves to the British? Actually they did and were turned down. The fact is that there were no rights for self determination for anyone in Palestine. British policy had been to utilise Zionism as a force to divide and discipline the Arab masses. That is how the Jewish population rose from fewer than 100,000 in 1917 to over 400,000 in 1939 (a third of the total population). The plan was eventually for a Jewish homeland under strict British tutelage. The turning off of Jewish immigration in 1939 was because the British were concerned to pacify the Arab majority to safeguard Palestine as a British controlled Middle Eastern hub, especially the oil pipeline, in the war.

The question of self-determination for the Zionists had nothing to do with democracy, because any solution, while the Jewish population remained a minority, would under democratic norms have to be cast in such a way that came to terms with the Arab majority. It is for this reason that the Zionist leadership fought so hard for unrestricted immigration and why the Arabs were against it. It is for the same reason that the Zionists while demanding Jewish immigration were opposed to Arab immigration. It is the same reason why Zionist policy was bitterly opposed to the idea of a constituent assembly. This vexed question of population arithmetic is what distorted the political agenda of Palestine.

With two thirds of the population the Arabs would seem to have a fairly safe majority. In fact, they had a plurality of only 400,000. For the Zionist leadership this was the magic number and to overhaul it took precedence over all other considerations. Such a number might just, with massive difficulty and at the expense mainly of the Arabs, be accommodated. This was the emphasis of Zionist propaganda, despite the fact that Palestine, assuming a complete disregard for the Arabs, could take only a small proportion of the Jews threatened and eventually murdered by Hitler. The massive propaganda effort was expended on altering Palestine’s population statistics, instead of demanding asylum from the US and Britain (who were infinitely better able to provide it) for these and many, many more Jews who were to be lost in Himmler’s ovens. This was not a matter of emphasis, shouting louder about Jerusalem than New York, it was a positive opposition to Jews going anywhere other than Palestine. If the intention had been to save Jewish lives at all costs, the argument should have been: ‘If you will not let Jews into British-mandated Palestine, then you have an urgent and absolute moral responsibility to give them asylum elsewhere.’ No such campaign was mounted.

Nevertheless, comrades might ask, is not the hallmark of socialist internationalism the free, unfettered flow of all people throughout the world? Why should Palestine be different? The short answer is that immigration as part of a concerted plan that will take over the country, expropriating, expelling and exploiting the native masses, is less immigration and more a long drawn out and aggressive invasion. For socialists, the reactionary character of Zionism is defined by its racist ideology, imbued with the spirit of separation and exclusion, the very reverse of socialist solidarity. It was prepared to ally itself with every reactionary force that might help its purposes. It lobbied such figures as the Kaiser, the Sultan of Turkey, for twenty years it cosied up to British imperialism, finally snuggling into the embrace of the biggest imperial power of all, the United States. In the process, it has treated the Arab population as a species of untermensch and has effectively driven a large portion of the Arab masses into the hands of Islamic obscurantists and bigots. It stands in the way of any socialist advance in the Arab world, operating as imperialism’s gendarme in the region, a far more effective force for imperialism than, for example, the feeble Saudi royal family or the Hashemites. If Zionism has had one redeeming feature over the years, it is that it never bothered to conceal its intentions, but it is difficult to commend a man for his honesty in telling you that he is going to beat your brains out, especially if he then delivers the mortal blow.

As Sean indicates, the development of ideas on Zionism in the Trotskyist movement is quite interesting. As Sean says, Cliff, in his New International article of June 1939, was for Jewish immigration into Palestine and for the sale of Arab land to the Jewish population, both points vigorously opposed by the Palestine CP. His argument for this, and it is a thin one, is: ‘Yet from the negation of Zionism does not yet follow the negation of the right to existence and extension of the Jewish population in Palestine. This would only be justified if an objectively necessary identity existed between the population and Zionism, and if the Jewish population were necessarily an outpost of British imperialism and nothing more’. Like a lot of Cliff, this takes a bit of time to get your head around. With perseverance one is, however, struck by how abstract it is as a serious formulation. Whether this is a reaction against the Arab chauvinism of the CPP I cannot say, but it clearly suggests that unless Zionism is 100 per cent in the pocket of British imperialism it is OK to augment its forces. But as we well know, nationalist movements are not wedded to any particular sponsor, and their interests are never seen as identical and often antithetical. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem could make overtures to Hitler, Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism, was a great admirer of Mussolini, and, during the war, Chandra Bhose, the leftist Indian nationalist, worked with the Japanese, building an Indian national army. In the same way, the Jewish population were not 100 per cent identified with Zionism, Cliff and the handful of Jewish Trotskyists were not and neither was the CPP, but in the absence of anything of consequence, Zionism certainly had at least the tacit support of an overwhelming majority of the Jews. After the war and the holocaust, that support became far more active.

I have a suspicion that it is from this 1939 article that Sean acquired his idea that the Comintern were not opposed to Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 1920s. In truth Cliff, as is his wont, is being a bit economical with the actualité here. He says: ‘The members of the Comintern in Palestine... while absolutely opposed to Zionism (against the national boycott [of Arab goods and Arab labour-JH], against slogans like the Jewish majority and the Jewish state and the alliance with England, etc ), declared at the same time that the Jewish population is not to be identified with Zionism and hence demanded the maximum freedom of movement for Jewish immigration into Palestine...’ You will notice the odd usage of the ‘members of the Comintern in Palestine’. He is trying not to refer to the CPP, which he excoriated earlier in his piece, and also neglects to say that the CPP was formed of resignees from the semi-Zionist Poale Zion in 1922. Whatever the CPP’s policy, may have been, up to 1926-7, it was not the Comintern’s.

Cliff’s article concludes by proclaiming that the only solution is socialism, but in the meanwhile calls for a secular, unitary state in a parliamentary democracy. The suggested programme included: compulsory education for all, a health service, pensions, minimum wage and all the other appurtenances of the welfare state. All of this seemed to have a familiar ring about it, especially when taken with the call for Jewish immigration. Then it struck me, Cliff’s 1939 policy was the same as that of the WP-ISL, as set out in various resolutions of that party. Shachtman never acknowledged this fact, but then he always denied that the theory of bureaucratic collectivism came from Bruno Rizzi. We are now left with a terrible problem. We have it on no less an authority than Sean Matgamna that Cliff, in 1946, had set the political line of Palestine for the Fourth International, especially of the Cannonite SWP. Now I find that such is the dastardly cunning of T Cliff, he had previously masterminded the opposing Shachtmanite WP-ISL policy. With the brain reeling, one realises the full horror of it all. The Cliff-inspired Shachtman variant has now been taken up by Sean Matgamna. When one recalls that for some years there was no greater fan of the US-SWP and James P Cannon than Sean Matgamna (he endorsed their defencism, violent anti-Shachtmanism as well as their anti-Zionism), we might describe this phenomenon as ‘deviated apostolic succession’.

In all this chopping and exchanging of opinions, we can confidently affirm that Sean’s ‘two states for two peoples’ formulation did not come from Lenin, Trotsky, Cliff (pre or post-1946), Shachtman, Cannon or any other international socialist source. In Sean’s thesis it seems that if most Jews support a Zionist state, although the overwhelming majority of them do not and would not live there, then socialists must support them regardless of the democracy of numbers or the rights of others. By the same token, presumably, the rural Afrikaners who want their own state must have it because they represent a significant minority.

It is possible to argue that after the war the people who suffered the ultimate barbarism of the holocaust deserved special treatment from the world that bore no little responsibility for that horror. It is a persuasive argument and one that struck the heartstrings of many in the aftermath of 1945. It was that public sympathy at the condition of Jews, who had endured so much, languishing in displaced persons camps, that put pressure on the Allied governments to solve this humanitarian problem. What none of them were going to do was open their own doors to a flood of immigrants. Not least of their calculations concerned the fact that there were also hundreds of thousands of displaced people and prisoners of war who might have claimed similar privileges. Their attitude was rather like that of Kaiser Wilhelm II who thought of a Jewish homeland as ‘at least somewhere to get rid of our Yids.’ The people’s conscience about the Jews was salved at little cost to the world but at the expense of the Palestinians. Many of the other refugees were herded callously to their deaths behind the Iron Curtain. In both instances, a cheap and easy solution for the Allies, but not one that readily commends itself to international socialists. It is ironic that the displaced persons camps in Europe emptied as the displaced persons camps in the Middle East were filling with Arabs. Why should the world’s debts be paid by the poorest people?

Of a piece with this affection for the accomplished fact and his perverse inability to see the need for change and to fight for it, is his sneering response to the suggestion that the answer is revolutionary socialism. For Sean, the fight must be for the maintenance of Israel. The socialist Matgamna is the eager partisan of this robustly capitalist state, this proud possessor of an arsenal of atom bombs, this outpost of imperialism that enshrines the expropriation and exploitation of its Arab citizens and finds its justification in the notion of the exclusive and superior character of its Jewish people. Sean might condemn (but not too loud) the denial of human and democratic rights, the legal theft of property and land, the arbitrary arrests, the rigorous application of collective guilt, the deportations and curfews, but he draws no political conclusions other than to excuse this on the grounds of the right of Israel to be secure. For my part, I believe that so long as Israel exists as a Zionist state, then Jews and Arabs will continue to die needlessly and to no good purpose, as they are dying while we conduct this argument. There will be no peace. I further believe that only under socialism can the national question be solved for both peoples, because only then can there be any chance of fairness and equity. The history of the last 50 years is the negative affirmation of that fact.

Scattered throughout Sean’s text are four footnotes. Footnote 3 is quite charming, because it bangs on at length abusing the leadership of IS, during Sean’s recruiting raid within its ranks from 1968 to 1971. As part of the leadership during that time I was overjoyed to discover that, along with Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman and Nigel Harris, I had displayed ‘Malvolio-like snobbery, self-satisfaction, and brain-pickling conceit, built on small achievement...’ As Malvolio said: ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ I have to say that, since he transferred his loyalty from Cannon to Shachtman, Sean has acquired an entirely better class of vituperation, although he still has some way to go before he is in the same street as Max Shachtman for his high-grade abuse. Probably better to get the politics right, Sean, especially the WP-ISL’s opposition to Zionism and two nations theory.

The disconnected footnote 4 concerns an anecdote told to Sean by James D Young, concerning a discussion about Israel, in the late 1950s, between Cliff and Hal Draper, witnessed by James. According to Sean: ‘Suddenly Draper turns on Cliff in irritation and repudiation, and accuses him: ‘You want to destroy the Israeli Jews! I don’t!’ Leaving aside the ‘irritation’ and ‘repudiation’ - this is just Sean spicing up the story - this little anecdote is actually more revealing of Sean’s method than of Cliff’s. We hear what Hal Draper said, as recalled by James, forty years after the event. But what did Cliff respond to this accusation of his wanting a pogrom of holocaust proportions? Did Sean ask James for this information and he could not remember? Or is that Sean, having acquired the evidence for the prosecution, did not want to confuse matters with any defence? Or did Cliff have no explanation and confess that he, along with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, wanted to drive all the Israeli Jews into the sea? If the answer to this last question is ‘yes’, then he should have been scandalised out of the movement. Or is this just something that Sean has failed to check properly with James D Young? What we do know, however, is that Draper was against the Zionist state and wanted to replace it with an Arab-Jewish socialist state. And so say all of us, including Cliff, I think.

Throughout Sean’s reply there runs an accusatory thread that I am conducting this argument as some way of making my apologies to Cliff. If I defend his line on Palestine in Workers’ Liberty it is to cover my ‘social embarrassment before [my] SWP friends and former comrades.’ Which ones are those, pray? Paul Foot, Chris Harman, Jim Nichol? I think not. I do not defend Cliff’s line on the permanent arms economy, because I no longer agree with it. I no longer defend his line on Russia, because I no longer agree with it. I defend his line on Zionism, because I agree with it. I defend the IS line on the Minority Movement that both of us, I and he, abandoned. It may come as a surprise to Sean but there are those of us who can disagree on fundamentals with Cliff without consigning everything he has said or done to the dustbin of history. At the same time, I do feel a degree of bitterness that what I saw as the best hope for the revolutionary movement in Britain since the 1920s, that I spent some time in helping to build, should have been diverted down various blind alleys at the behest of Cliff’s impressionism and caprice. Most of all, my real complaint is not that Cliff has maintained his position on various matters, it is that he is capable of jettisoning almost any of those positions for at worst imaginary and at best transitory benefit. All of this and a great deal more, I have set out in a recently completed book on the IS Group [2]. At the end of it I do not think anybody, including Cliff, will think that I am apologising, or wonder why I, and many others, are a touch bitter.

Finally, I would like to apologise to those Workers’ Liberty readers who have got this far, for taking up so much of their time, but they really should blame Sean. He started it.

1. Current medical research suggests that Alzheimer’s may be caused through eating from aluminium cooking utensils. If Sean still has such pots in his kitchen, I suggest he replaces them without delay.

2. More Years for the Locust by Jim Higgins, to be published by the International Socialist Group.

* Jim Higgins’ suggested title for this piece was ‘Sean Maxshachtmana’.

Up on the Malvolian heights

By Sean Matgamna

I find it difficult to accept that Jim Higgins intends his piece as a serious contribution to the discussion. He merely regurgitates and reformulates much that he said earlier, and which I refuted and corrected earlier - on Deir Yassin, for example.

Higgins, I fear, confuses track-covering repetition with serious argument, just as he confuses oblique evasiveness with wit, and elephantine orotundity with a praiseworthy style.

Up on the oxygen-starved Malvolian heights, Higgins has adopted the late Healy’s idea of a powerful argument - saying things twice or, preferably, three times and four times, at increasing length, lacing the polemic with desperate abuse, direct and ‘stylish’. Like the late Healy, the late Higgins fails to notice that this sort of thing harms no one so much as its author.

Higgins does try to give value for money - politician, literary critic, literary detective, style guru, Jim is all of these and more. Those who can, do, those who can’t, try to teach? Jim - no fool he - has twigged that I’ve read the files of old Workers’Party USA publications. His conclusion that what I say about the Middle East is culled from this treasure house identifies him as someone who left politics in the late 70s, and has no idea of what happened after his demise. What we say about the Middle East and similar questions - and Northern Ireland is, in principle, almost the same question - is the result of long public discussion in the pages of Socialist Organiser. His idea that other people do what Tony Blair and bourgeois politicians do, and change policies in pursuit of ‘market openings’, accurately describes Tony Cliff’s approach - for example, it is what Cliff did when he became a ‘Luxemburgist’ circa 1958 - but not that of the AWL. (By the way, the late Bernard Dix became a Welsh nationalist and joined Plaid Cymru, around 1980!)

The idea that the political identity of a tendency can be put on like clothes found in an attic is worthy of someone who, I understand, has written a book to prove that Jim Higgins is the living embodiment and custodian of ‘the IS tradition’. It doesn’t work that way, Jim. The politics of the AWL are the result of work to develop and clarify what we started with - the politics of the Cannon tendency - in the light of discussion and experience, and work in the class struggle too. As it happens, it is true that we probably are now the nearest approximation in politics to the Workers’ Party of the 1940s - though we are not identical with it, and, for myself, though I criticise Cannon, I make no blanket repudiations of him and what he tried to do.

In brief: which is Higgins saying? That I haven’t read Cliff’s 1946 work? Or that I wouldn’t notice without help, not unless Al Glotzer had already noticed it forty years earlier, that it simply has nothing to say about the political issues I spend much time debating? Or is Higgins simply short of something to say? He should have read the footnote where I link the approach to the Middle East conflict he and Cliff share with a famous discussion in the Marxist movement between Lenin and Bukharin-Piatakov on the so-called ‘imperialist economism’. He might then have avoided the method Lenin rightly castigates there and dealt seriously with my question: why, from a socialist and consistently democratic point of view, did the Jewish national minority not have national rights? He destructures this basic question in a welter of not always accurate detailed ‘practical’ considerations. Who, he asks, was ‘to afford’ national rights to the Jews? In fact, nobody did: they won the right of self-determination in war with the British, the Palestinian Arabs and the surrounding Arab states. I repeat why, in the world as it was and is, were they not entitled to do this?

Neither before, during, nor after the war did ‘the world’ protect the Jews: that is where the often very brutal psychology of the Israeli state, of the heirs of those who survived Hitler’s slaughter, and those who died in it, comes from. It is the Palestinian Jews who have the irreducible right of self-determination. As for the rest of the world’s Jews - if we denounce as racist all those who do not agree to, or advocate, the destruction of Israel then we are comprehensively hostile to most Jews alive. We therefore fall into a form of anti-semitism. Higgins can’t seem to take in the idea that to say this is not to say that ‘left-wing’ anti-semites are racists. No, you are not racist; yes, you are for practical purposes an anti-semite - comprehensively hostile to most Jews alive.

This comprehensive hostility does not on the left go back much more than a quarter of a century, though its roots can be traced far into the past, as I explained. Higgins puts the Arab propagandists’ picture of European displaced persons’ camps emptying of Jews as Middle Eastern displaced persons’ camps filled up with Arabs. Missing is the fact that almost as many Jews were then ‘displaced’ from Arab countries - to Israel - as Arabs from Palestine. Missing is the element in the situation of the deliberate maintenance for political purposes by Arab regimes of the refugees as refugees. Possibly Jim worked too long for an Arab bourgeois journal to be still able to see such things.

Unteachable, Higgins drops his idiotic - but very revealing - idea that it was ‘the Zionists’ who stopped the benign F D Roosevelt opening the USA to Jewish refugees [WL 34], but he goes on blaming ‘the Zionists’ for all the closed doors in ‘the planet without a visa’ for Jewish refugees. I think the Trotskyists were right, in the USA for example, to demand of Zionist organisations that they join in our campaign for open doors. Like the blinkered sectarian he is, underneath the desperate mimicking of urbanity, Higgins still blames the Zionists for everything that followed. Our old political criticism of Jewish nationalism thus becomes the attribution of moral responsibility to Jewish nationalists for all that was done to millions of Jews! Essentially the demand here is that the Zionists should have ceased to be nationalists, that is Zionists. Nationalists are nationalists, of course. But Jewish nationalists are worse than other nationalists - indeed, on them falls the guilt for what the nationalists, chauvinists and racists of other nations do to their people. In fact, they ‘bring it on themselves’, don’t they, Jim?

Higgins, like Cliff, confuses what could reasonably be said in a debate with a socialist Zionist in say 1930 with an attitude to the reborn Jewish nation in Palestine; except that the old Marxist criticism by words is replaced with Arab bourgeois and feudalist criticism by bomb, gun and poison gas. Israel will not cease to be ‘Zionist’, in Jim Higgins’ sense, unless it is militarily conquered and overrun. But Jim Higgins says that, though he wants Israel done away with, he would like to see it replaced by socialism. The problem is that Saddam Hussein, etc. will not make socialism, or even accord Jews equal citizenship.

At this point I find myself very impolitely thinking that Jim Higgins is incorrigibly stupid; and then, abundant evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I remember that he isn’t; and thus I reach the truth: here stupidity, impenetrable, albeit would-be smart and ‘stylish’ stupidity, serves the same purpose as hypocrisy; it is a variant of it. For nobody not born yesterday can think socialism is an immediate Middle Eastern option if only Israel is no more, or not know that Jim Higgins-style anti-Israeli propaganda, including his deceptive talk of socialism - socialism without an agency - serves those who in the world of realpolitik want to destroy Israel in the name of Arab and Muslim vindication and revenge.

Leninists are not vague socialist propaganda mongers: we are always concerned with ‘realpolitik’. Without realpolitik - as Lenin explained to those socialists, the so-called economists, who wanted to leave the struggle for democratic rights, a bourgeois republic and other non-socialist things to the Russian liberals - your enemies establish their version of realpolitik and use it against your socialist cause. Here Jim Higgins, who is in fact an old-style socialist sectarian of the sort Lenin fought, winds up spouting fine socialist words that have no grip on life and in real politics he finds himself happily in tow to Arab bourgeois realpolitik. So does the SWP.

I refuted Higgins’ tunnel vision account of things by putting the emergence of Israel in historical context. He repeats it now in terms of the politics of population arithmetic in 30s Palestine. He sees the calculations of the Zionist demon as all-determining. As if the movements of the Jews to Palestine can be understood apart from Hitler and earlier smaller Hitlers! But I have already covered this in considerable detail.

In fact the Zionists would have accepted the partition proposed by the British Peel Commission in 1937 - and then, under Arab pressure, rejected by the British government. Higgins admits that Arab immigration was important in Palestine in the 20s and 30s; why was that legitimate, and Jewish immigration - the migration of people fleeing for their lives to their own community in Palestine - not?

It is of small consequence, but I never imagined that in Higgins’ 1973 piece he was being anything but Cliff’s hack, on the way out: the piece seemed to me to register a stage in the degeneration of SWP thought on this question.

I said that the Trotskyists in Trotsky’s time believed Jews had a right to go to Palestine. The exceptions to that I know of were the French POI, the group which published Spark in South Africa, and, I think, C L R James. Jim responds with speculation that I formed this opinion from Tony Cliff’s 1938-9 pieces in New International. I didn’t, though Cliff’s stuff then is evidence for my case. What I said was derived from the whole history, including Trotsky’s writings.

Thus drooling over Cliff and speculating, Higgins evades the whole broader question! Is my account of the pre-war Trotskyist movement right or wrong?

Higgins is too busy being stylish to be loyal in the discussion: I am concerned for the ‘security’ of Israel against those who advocate its destruction in the name of ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘socialism’; but I am for those Israeli socialists, Jewish and Arab, and for those in the Arab world, who want equality and democracy and a free Arab state alongside the Jewish state in Palestine. All nationalists - Irish nationalists for example - see their nation as ‘superior’ and ‘holy’ and ‘elect’ - it is the nature of the thing. [How do I know? Guess] Calling it racism can sometimes make people think: but you can’t do it to only one nation in a national conflict without lining up on the side of the other no less ‘racist’ nation. Jim Higgins does that, despite his repudiation of realpolitik and talk of socialism, because he is a sleepwalking ‘socialist’ sectarian who has no notion of the Leninist way of combining socialism and working class realpolitik.

I like jokes and humour and ‘style’, Jim, and I’m not invariably unappreciative of an adroit, well filled double negative, in good season. But to tell it to you plain, in old-fashioned English: I don’t give a fuck for any of that if it is counterposed to politics, and I don’t see anything that is not simply pitiable in would-be funny polemic that evades the issues, and cleverisms that tie the author, not his opponent, in knots. The style appropriate to our business - mine anyway - is one that lets you say it truthfully, plainly, and as sharply as necessary for presenting things as they really are. The rest is trimming. If Shachtman is the measure here, Shachtman used humour to throw light on things: in the work that I know he never sacrificed political substance to style, still less to the vain pursuit of it - that way, Comrade Higgins, lies decadence, as you have here once more demonstrated.

Arabesques, he once turned in Cliff’s rodeo,

Who now sits ad absurdum, reductio!

See him fret, see him fume,

Watch him preen and presume:

‘God, I’m pleased I was me’, sighs Malvolio.

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